The Cat That Got The Koran By Malu Halasa Harpers & Queen Magazine October 1st, 1996 Courtesy of Imran Ispahani
A series of hit albums had brought Cat Stevens (Bio) wealth and fame, when a brush with death led to divine revelation. Now called Yusuf Islam (Bio), and a member of the Supreme Council of British Muslims, he is committed to curing western ignorance of Islam. Malu Halasa charts a spiritual journey
London 4 JULY, 1996. The Dorchester Hotel, on the night of Jemima Khan's fund-raising dinner for her husband's cancer hospital in Lahore, is brimming with celebrities and social A-lists. Designer gowns, couture shalwar kameez, and jewels to put the Queen's to shame, are the order of the evening. Paparazzi, barred from the party, clamour at the entrance to take pictures of the arriving grandees; a crowd waits to catch a glimpse of Jemima. Virtually no one notices a dark man, clad in a simple robe. Even had they heard his name, Yusuf Islam, or seen it printed on the invitation as a committee member, they would probably have been none the wiser. But mention Cat Stevens to these same people and they will still be humming his songs an hour later. Today, Cat Stevens is Yusuf Islam; the singer has cast off his celebrity sheen and re-emerged as a committed Muslim activist.
There are many reasons not to like him. Yusuf Islam does not shake hands with women journalists, or look them straight in the eye. As the defender of a faith that doles out harsh justice, he supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. When he argued in a debate at the Oxford Union that "submission to Allah is not at odds with freedom and democracy," he lost the vote.
Within the Muslim community, however, he is highly respected. He is chairman of four charities dealing with education and humanitarian relief work, and the founder of an Islamic school in Kilburn, North London. He brought four British hostages back from Iraq at the height of the Gulf war, and earlier this year made a goodwill visit to Bosnia. The Life Of The Last Prophet (Album), his first album for seventeen years, may be a far cry from Tea For The Tillerman (Song) (Album), but it has earned him a huge following in the East.
Although he was not the first rock musician to get religion, his choice of creed is, on the face of it, a strange one. Apart from anything else, his father's family are Greek Cypriots, who equate Islam with the Turkish soldiers who occupy half their native land. The fact that worshippers must read the Koran in its original language, classical Arabic, makes it peculiarly inaccessible and its strict code of behaviour and commitment to prayer and pilgrimage seem at odds with the excesses of pop life. But Dr Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College and former imam at Regent's Park mosque, sees nothing surprising in Yusuf Islam's conversion.
'Many musicians indulge in a lot of sexual activity and drugs,' he says. 'Once they leave their profession, they reject their past: Yusuf Islam stopped playing music; Ibrahim Hewitt, another musician, burnt his instruments. They were attracted to the purity of Islam. Although sharia [Islamic law] has had bad press, the fact is we have a set of rules and regulations at a time when people are confused.' No one was more confused than the young Cat Stevens. Half Cypriot, half Swedish, growing up among the drinking clubs and clip joints of Sixties Soho, he was still a teenager when he had his first lavishly produced pop hits, 'Matthew and Son' and 'The First Cut Is The Deepest (Song) (Album)' among them. He learnt an early, valuable lesson about excess when, weakened by heavy drinking and late nights, he contracted tuberculosis.
After a convalescence of almost two years, he simplified his life and music, and returned with a string of international hits during the early to mid- Seventies, including 'Wild World (Song)', 'Morning Has Broken (Song) (Album)', and 'Peace Train (Song). He drew the artwork for the LP Teaser And The Firecat (Book) (Album), and produced an animated short that opened his gigs while he played 'Moon Shadow'. Capturing the innocence of the bed sit generation, he appealed to teenage girls in Laura Ashley dresses as well as to 40-year-old bank managers. His mega-selling albums, notably Tea for the Tillerman, Catch A Bull At Four and Foreigner (Album), made him a star with all the trimmings. His name regularly appeared in gossip columns alongside his American actress-girlfriend Patti D'arbanville (Bio), who later left him for Mick Jagger. But he was plainly dissatisfied. Like many others, he explored Zen Buddhism, Taoism, numerology, and astrology, sometimes changing from week to week.
As one record executive remarked, 'By the time he was 22, he had enough money and enough women, and it looked like the rest of his life was going to be an anticlimax.'
A traumatic experience in 1977 forced him to re-exainine his life. 'I was in Malibu,' he says, 'at the house of my record chief, Jerry Moss, and I decided to take a dip in the sea. I started swimming out a little bit, then I tried to come back to shore. That was when I realised the current was moving me away from land. I was absolutely powerless. In a split second, I shouted out, "Oh God, if you save me, I'll work for you." At that moment, a wave came from behind me and pushed me forward, and suddenly, with all the energy I needed, I was swimming back to land. Within a few minutes, I was safe and alive.'
Whether through coincidence or mystic revelation, Stevens was open to the new spiritual direction when his elder brother David Gordon (Bio) presented him with a copy of the Koran. 'I didn't think there was any particular religion that seemed to have the universal concept,' he recalls. 'The moment that I opened my mind to the message of the Koran, I was amazed to find that it was not that foreign religion which I had expected.'
One sura; or chapter, particularly affected him. Yusuf, or Joseph as he is known in the Bible, is sold into slavery, and guided by prophetic dreams. Only when he submits himself to the will of Allah does he regain his personal power and freedom. Yusuf's journey was a metaphor for the wandering and searching of Stevens's own life. 'When I came upon this story, I started crying. I knew that this book could not be written by a human being. It was a revelation.'
While many of his fans were baffled and dismayed by his conversion - or 'realisation', as he prefers to call it - his friends were relieved. 'I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't found Islam,' says Lionel Conway, then head of Island Music and now president of Maverick Music, Madonna's new venture with Time Warner. 'He probably wouldn't be around today.' According to Yusuf Islam himself, 'The moment I became a Muslim, I became happy. It is very difficult to explain beyond that.'
His conversion, however, has brought its own problems. He sued an American magazine, Globe, when an article erroneously suggested that he had gone to live in Iran and was being taught by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1990, he pronounced on the Granada television programme Hypotheticals that, while he personally would not spoil Salman Rushdie's meal if he saw him eating with Fay Weldon in a restaurant, the author did deserve to die. The resulting uproar caused many United States radio stations to stop playing his music: WNEW FM in New York even offered copies of the Satanic Verses to listeners who sent in their Stevens records.
The Rushdie Affair remains problematic for western Muslims. When asked by the Guardian's Steven Moss whether supporters of the fatwa should be tried for murder, Yusuf Islam replied, 'If a person in the twentieth century is being chased because he says that the Ten Commandments should still apply, then I say there is something serious wrong.' Yet, when called up in front of the Brent Educational Authority, he insisted that, under Islamic law, 'Muslims are bound to keep within the limits of the law of the country in which they live, provided it does not restrict their freedom of worship.'
As a prominent member of the Supreme Council of British Muslims, he condemned the allied bombing in the Gulf war, Before helping to secure the release of four British hostages. He also attempted - along with Greenham Common activists - to set up the Gulf Peace Team, a small international group that organised peace camps on the desert border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, using non-violent methods to curtail armed aggression from both sides. But even his charity work, which, as one of the five pillars of Islam, he takes extremely seriously, has brought controversy. He won a second libel suit, this time against Private Eye, when it alleged that funds from his charities had bought arms for Afghan rebels. More recently, the Islamia School he founded has been beset by wrangling.
Like other Muslim parents, Yusuf Islam worries about his children's morals and their academic training - so much so that he decided to start a school for his eldest daughter, Hassana, near the family home. (He and his wife, Fawzia Ali, whom he married in 1979, have five children in all.) To this end, he paid £2.5 million to buy and renovate an old secondary school; ten years later, it has 308 pupils and a waiting-list of 1,000.
Since Muslims pay the same taxes as everyone else, Yusuf Islam believes that they should have state-sponsored religious schools like those run by Roman Catholics and the Church of England. (Only one-fifth of the Islamia School day is filled with Arabic and Islamic studies; the rest is devoted to the full national curriculum.) The battle for government funding has, however, been a long one, and in the meantime the school has been heavily dependent on contributions from Saudi Arabia.
As with other religions, however, there are enormous tensions within Islam. (In 1993, a fellow worshipper accused Yusuf Islam of being an Israeli agent, before eventually issuing a public apology.) In a letter to his government, the Saudi ambassador asked for support to be withdrawn from the school because Yusuf Islam had failed to attend an event that celebrated Saudi Arabia. The letter was leaked in the UK by the Saudi dissident Dr Muhammad al-Masari: as a result, the Islamia School lost 85 per cent of its overseas funding. The good news is that its case for grant-maintained status has been bolstered by excellent academic results - since the girls started taking CCSES two years ago, they have topped the league tables in Brent.
Yusuf Islam laments the fact that Western perceptions of Islam have long been determined by orientalists who, in his opinion, were guilty of gross distortion. 'Today, the great difference is that we have not only non-Muslims writing about Islam, we have Muslims. I am trying to convey the message of Islam in English to people like me who didn't know anything about it.'
One way has been through the musical seerah (biography of Muhammad) which he began recording in 1993. The two-CD set, The Life of the Last Prophet was released last year, and hit Number One in Turkey. Yusuf Islam is adamant that his religion does not ban music altogether: 'The strict orthodox view is that one does not use musical instruments. There is an allowance for some percussive drums, but that's about it. The main focus of Muslim traditional music has always been the voice, the carrier of the message of the word.' Indeed, Last Prophet has some of the finest adhan, or calls to prayer, ever recorded. During Ramadan, music is usually banned from television in Malaysia: this year, the CDS and video from Last Prophet were played non-stop.
In order to control the undue influence of his own music, Yusuf Islam has tried to maintain a strict control over his pop back-catalogue. He prevented Levi jeans from using his songs in their advertisements, and, while he would have preferred not to have penned the sexist sentiments of 'Wild World', he was said to be more flattered than upset when the Pet Shop Boys used a similar melody for 'It's a Sin'. Recently, Boyzone's version of 'Father And Son (Song)' went to Number Two in the British charts.
For a person who, according to the Arabic proverb, balances each hour given to this world with an hour given to the next, the past holds no promise. 'People still want to see Cat Stevens, who wasn't really there,' he says. 'I was one of those who carved this image and projected it. It was up to me to destroy it.'